What we have listed here is a brief list of wine terms that are used in general wine conversations and you may hear when shopping for wine at Big Red Liquors or reading the tasting notes with our featured wines. It is not meant to be all inclusive. There are, for example, over 1,500 grape varieties used in wine making not to mention all the countries, regions, appellations and scientific terms that could be included in such a listing.
Acidification: The addition of acid (usually tartaric) during fermentation, frequently necessary in hot climates where grapes tend to over ripen and become deficient in acidity, thereby losing freshness.
Acidity: The acids in a wine (principally tartaric, malic, citric and lactic) provide liveliness, longevity and balance.
Aging: Wine is one of the few foodstuffs that can improve with age, and this is also one of its key fascinations. The longevity of different types of wine is a complex and inexact science.
Appellation Contrôlée: The French are great bureaucrats, and a wine with Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) on the label will have had to have met a whole host of regulations regarding grape variety, maximum yield, minimum ageing and so on. However, this doesn’t mean that what is in the bottle will necessarily be of any interest.
Balanced: A wine is balanced when all the component parts, such as tannins, fruits, acidity and sweetness, are correctly matched and in harmony, and none stands out inappropriately. It’s a bit of a subjective call.
Balthazar: A huge bottle that contains 12 liters of Champagne, which is the equivalent of 16 bottles.
Barrel fermentation: The process of fermenting grape juice in small oak barrels. Especially when the barrels are new, this can add complexity and oak-derived flavors to the finished wine.
Barrique: The standard Bordeaux barrel, holding 225 liters or the equivalent of about 300 bottles of wine.
Blanc de Blanc: “White of Whites”, meaning a white wine made of white grapes, such as Champagne made of Chardonnay.
Blanc de Noirs: White wine made of red or black grapes, where the juice is squeezed from the grapes and fermented without skin contact. These wines can have a pale pink hue.
Botrytis Cinerea: Called the “Noble Rot”. A beneficial and often highly desirable mold or fungus that attacks grapes under certain climatic conditions and causes them to shrivel, deeply concentrating the flavors, sugar, and acid.
Bouquet: A wine-buff term for the smell of a wine. Some old-school tasters reserve use of this term for the special aromas that develop with bottle age.
Brettanomyces: A wild yeast strain that occurs naturally in wineries and vineyards. Low levels of infection can add complexity to a wine. High levels are perceived by most as a fault.
Brut: A general term used to designate a relatively dry-finished Champagne or sparkling wine, often the driest wine made by the producer.
Buttery: Tasting term used to describe the rich, creamy characters often found in barrel fermented Chardonnay that has undergone malolactic fermentation.
Carbonic Maceration: A form of anaerobic fermentation, practiced extensively in Beaujolais that produces a bright, fruity style of wine.
Cava: Spanish bubbles made using the traditional champagne method.
Cepage: The finished product of a blend, e.g. Cabernet/Merlot; Syrah/Grenache.
Chaptalization: The addition of sugar during fermentation to increase a wine’s alcoholic strength.
Claret: Old-fashioned English term for red wines from the Bordeaux region.
Classed growth: A literal translation from the French term, cru classé, that describes a property or Château included in the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux, and the subsequent reclassifications
Corked: Have you ever opened a bottle, and instead of clean, fruity aromas found that it smells of moldy cellars and damp cardboard? This is what a corked wine smells like. This is a wine that has been contaminated by a chemical called trichloranisole (TCA). The human nose is extremely sensitive to this contaminant. It is a major problem, spoiling between 2% and 7% of all wines, depending on who you listen to. This is why artificial corks are increasingly being used, especially on inexpensive wines not destined for ageing. The degree of cork-taint can vary, but you’ll find that almost all retailers will replace a corked bottle without question if you return it.
Cru: French term for vineyard, often translated as growth.
Cuvee: A blend or special lot of wine.
Demi-Sec: In the language of Champagne, a term relating to sweetness; although demi-sec means half-dry, demi-sec sparkling wines are usually slightly sweet to medium sweet.
Dosage: Champagne making is a complex process. First the wine is fermented, and then a secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle. After this, the plug of dead yeast cells is removed, and the wine is topped up with wine and sugar syrup¾the dosage. The sweetness of the final Champagne is determined by the dosage used.
Dry: Opposite of sweet; having no perceptible taste of sugar.
Ester: Volatile flavor compound naturally created in fermentation. Often fruity, flowery, or spicy.
Extra Dry: A common Champagne term not to be taken literally. Most “extra-dry” Champagnes are sweet.
Fermentation: The conversion of grape juice into wine through the action of yeasts present in the juice or added to the juice, which turn sugar into alcohol. This alcoholic fermentation is also known as primary fermentation.
Filtration: A method of clarifying and stabilizing wine to give it a pleasingly lucid color and to remove yeasts, bacteria or other solid matter that might otherwise spoil the wine after it has been bottled. Excessive filtration, like excessive fining, can strip a wine of aroma, body, texture and length.
Fining: A method of clarifying wine by pouring a coagulant (such as egg whites) on top and letting it settle to the bottom. In general, a fining agent is allowed to fall through the wine, while in filtration; the wine is passed through a filter.
Fino: A dry, light style of sherry that has a distinctive salty, tangy flavor that comes from being aged under a layer of yeast cells, called a ‘flor’. Although these are usually 15% alcohol or above, they make quite good food wines due to their dry, savory character.
First growths: The five elite properties of the Medoc and Graves regions of Bordeaux: Latour, Lafite, Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild and Margaux, which were picked out as ‘Premier Cru Classé’ in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification (actually, Mouton Rothschild was promoted from a second growth in the 1970s). These wines have an iconic status, and they are very expensive.
Flabby: A word used to describe a wine that doesn’t have enough acidity to balance the other elements. Buttery Chardonnays with rich tropical fruit flavors from warm-climate regions are most likely to show this sort of character, especially if they are a few years old.
Flinty: Bang two pieces of flint together hard, and take a sniff: this is the smell that in wines is referred to as ‘flinty’, and it’s often used to describe young Chablis.
Fortify: To raise the alcohol content of a wine by the addition of brandy or neutral spirits.
Fruity: Technically, grapes are a fruit. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that some wines are described as fruity. Modern winemaking techniques help bring out the fruit character in wines that previously would have been much less attractive.
Literally thousands of varieties of grapes exist with somewhere around 1,500 that are commercially grown for wine production. Listed here are the most common types:
Red Wine Grapes:
White Wine Grapes:
Green: A negative tasting term for a wine that tastes youthful, unripe, raw and acidic.
Lees: Solid residue (mostly dead yeast cells) and grape pulp, pips, and skins, (known as gross lees) that remains in the cask after the wine has finished fermentation. Many white wines and some reds are kept on their lees for a period of time to protect them from oxidation, enrich their textures, and add complexity.
Maceration: Red winemaking process in which tannins, pigments and flavor compounds are released from the grape skins in the fermentation vessel. Fermentation is usually over pretty quickly with red wines, so many winemakers like to leave the wine in contact with the skins for longer; this is known as extended maceration and results in deeper colored wines. A variation is the process called cold maceration, in which grape skins and juice are held at low temperature: the theory is that this results in the extraction of a better class of molecules from the skins.
Methuselah: Large-format bottle that holds six liters of Champagne (eight bottles’ worth).
Malolactic Fermentation: A secondary fermentation in which the more tart malic acid is converted into softer lactic acid and carbon dioxide. Malolactic fermentation, which generally follows the alcoholic fermentation, is nearly always carried out in red wines. Some producers of white wines encourage malolactic fermentation, while others, especially those in hot regions that produce grapes with low levels of acidity, avoid it in order to retain the wine’s freshness.
Methode Champenoise: The process whereby wine undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the bottle, creating bubbles.
Must: Grape juice not yet fermented or in the process of being fermented into wine.
Noble Rot: Right before harvest after a succession of damp misty mornings the grapes are infected by a fungus called Botrytis, with the result that they shrivel up and go all furry. This is what is known as noble rot, and although the grapes look disgustingly inedible, infected bunches yield small quantities of concentrated juice that produces some of the world’s most complex, sublime and long-lived sweet white wines.
Nose: The thing between your eyes on the front of your face. Your nose gives you much more useful information about the characteristics of a wine than your tongue or another term for the smell, aroma or bouquet of a wine.
Nouveau: A style of light, fruity, youthful red wine bottled and sold as soon as possible. Applies mostly to Beaujolais.
Oaky: Smell or taste of the oak cask in which the wine was vinified and/or aged; oak notes can include such elements as vanilla, clove, cinnamon, cedar, smoke, toast, bourbon, and coffee.
Old Vine: A marketing term with absolutely no legal definition, but it’s usually used to refer to wine made from grape vines that are over 30 years old. Older vines, in theory, produce fewer grapes but those they do produce are of a better quality than fruit from younger vines.
Oxidized: A term describing a commonly encountered wine fault, caused by the exposure of a wine to oxygen, which eventually turns the alcohol to acetic acid. Net result is vinegar. A mildly oxidized red wine will have a brownish color. A mildly oxidized white wine will have a deep yellow/gold color and unappealing flavors of butterscotch and coffee, perhaps also with some volatility on the nose. The most common cause of oxidation is cork failure, letting air into the wine, although white wines intended for early consumption that have been cellared for too long will also display these characters to varying degrees.
Rack: To transfer wine from one vessel to another, leaving the sediment behind.
Reduced/Reductive: Essentially the opposite of oxidized or oxidative. Instead of forming bonds with oxygen, aromatic compounds in the maturing wine form bonds with hydrogen and sulfur. This generally occurs during barrel or tank aging.
Reserve: There is no formal definition of what makes a ‘reserve’ wine: producers usually use this to indicate a wine that is made from selected grapes or has been given lavish oak treatment.
Sec: French term for ‘dry’, as in the opposite of sweet.
Solera: A system used in the fractional blending of wines of various ages in order to achieve a consistent product. Most widely found in Jerez (Sherry).
Sulfur: The most common disinfectant and preservative for wine. Most winemakers feel that it is nearly impossible to produce stable wine without judicious use of sulfur products at one or more stages of vinification.
Tannin: A bitter, mouth-drying substance found in the skins, stalks and pips of the grapes–as well as in wood barrels. Tannin acts as a preservative and is thus an important component if the wine is to be aged over a long period. Tannins are frequently harsh in a young wine, but gradually soften or dissipate as the wine ages in the bottle.
TCA: An abbreviation for the chemical trichloranisole, which ruins an enormous amount of wine every year, (see corked).
Varietal: A wine named after the single grape variety it was made from.
Volatile Acidity (VA): Vinegar. In very small quantities this can add a refreshing zing to a wine. In excessive amounts it is perceived as a fault.
Yeast: The various microorganisms that cause fermentation. Wild yeasts are naturally present on grape skins, but cultivated yeasts are generally used to control fermentation more carefully.
For expanded listings and information we recommend:
- Wine Critic Robert Parker
- Robin Garr’s Wine Lover’s Page
- Connoisseur’s Guide to Californian Wines
- England’s best wine magazine
- Wine Enthusiast Magazine
- One of the best suppliers of wine-related books
- Institute of Masters of Wine
- Wine Spectator
- Bob Campbell, MW, writes about New Zealand wines
- Britain’s best resource for wine professionals
- The world’s leading wine writer
- New Zealand’s Bob Campbell, Master of Wine
- Midwest wine events calendar